Sunday, January 2, 2011

On the right path

Teacher Musings:
About a week ago I was all geared up to write a post about how frustrated I am with how standardized testing is affecting my students. I actually don't have that many problems with the test itself, but I am super frustrated by the way the "low scores" at my school (just below 85% proficiency in a class of about 100 students) have had a negative impact on what and how I teach my students. With that said I'm trying to have a more positive outlook, so I'm going to post about a recent success instead, since writing about the above topic will only make me cranky.

This school year I have been focusing on moving my students towards exhibiting more thoughful reasoning and more analytical writing. Recently I chose to have my students write two analytical paragraphs about a passage in "A Lesson Before Dying" rather than writing a "whole" essay. Please keep in mind that their two paragraphs took up about 2 pages (typed, double-spaced) and this saved a lot of time and energy on both my part in theirs where we didn't have to worry about a "hook" or other such things for a introduction, which I have found students getting caught up at the expense of their actual analysis of the literature. Students had to analyze either the tone or the character development in their passage and then explain what they thought the author was showing us about racist labels or the dealth penatly through this tone or character development. I did a lot of little things along the way that mattered (as any teacher would know, the little tools, sentence starters, and timing make a huge difference) but I wanted to share a few of the things I did that led to some of the most thoughtful analysis I have seen in a long time. For example, one student wrote "In this passage Gaines creates a tone of resignation" as her claim. Another student, an ELL student who struggles to get words on a page sometimes, wrote "Gaines gives short sentences like "death by electrocution" and that's it. He doesn't say "I feel bad" or "I will try and help you." This shows that Jefferson life transformed into sadness." While this is not the most sophisticated use of language, I am excited that it shows how my students are thinking about how an author uses language and sentence structure to send a message, and that word choice, sentence structure, etc. are deliberate choices an author makes. It is still not where I want it to be, and it is not the great writing I know my students are capable of, but I am still excited becuase I think it is a step in the right direction. So, here are some of the key choices I made that I think really helped push my students to some deeper thinking:
  • As we have been reading students have been pulling out interesting passages of THEIR choice and writing about them. I had them chose one of these passages to write about.
  • I gave students sentence starters to get their "claim" or "paragraph theses" written.
  • I gave students list of tone words, and we did an activity where students created a continuum for tone words.
  • I offered graphic organizers of various sorts, but did not force any students to use them
  • I wrote a model paper of my own and shared it with students - we analyzed it as class
  • I told students they needed to have twice as much "analysis" as "evidence"
  • I gave them two whole class periods just to write. We were in the computer lab, which I think helped focus some of them, but just having the time to write and conference was HUGE!

Sometimes when I talk to colleagues they are aghast at how little my students seem to write. True, my students don't generally write 5-7 page papers in my class (at least not yet) and this is a problem. But I have my students write and revise a 1-2 page paper every 1-2 weeks, and, while this literary analysis assignment I've discussed might seem small (2 paragraphs - really!) it was thought-provoking for both me and them. This was the first time I have assigned anything resembling true literary analysis and NOT received 2 page long summarizes of a book, or random quotes sprinkled here and there with no real point. Like I said before, it is not where I want to be, but I finally feel like I just moved onto a clear path after a very long walk in a confusing forest.

Yummy Stuff:
Every Christmas growing up we had my grandparents and aunt and uncle over to my house and feasted on cold cuts, gnocchi, stuffed peppers, tyropitas and desserts galore. I still remember the first Christmas when I went to my husband's house and they had turkey, or when I heard that other people had ham - I was so confused!! Chirstmas was time for an Italian feast, as far as I was concerned! Well, times have changed in many ways - now we are vegans on the East Coast, and my parents and sister fly out to our house to spend Christmas with us and our new little guy. Ever since we have been out here I have tried to veganize my favorite Christmas dishes with some success. My Grandmother's tyropitas were always some of my favorites - a savory cottage cheese, Parmesan cheese and egg filling in a wonderful crispy phyllo pocket. The first year I veganized this it was super bland, but (much like my work with my students) trial and error has led to some success. This year my vegan tyropitas were a success, and I'm thinking that it might almost be time to make them for grandmother next time we are out to visit them. Although nothing can measure up to Grandma's cooking!

Vegan Tyropitas:
1 lb (14-16 oz) of firm, regular tofu
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tsp of agave
1 tsp dried basil
8 oz container of vegan cream cheese (I use Tofutti brand)
2 TB of nutritional yeast
salt to taste
1 package of phyllo dough
1 cup of vegan butter (I love Earth Balance!) melted

1. First you are going to need to make the tofu ricotta (adapted from the Uncheese cookbook). I suggest doing this a day or so in advance. Break the tofu in to large chunks. Then, place them in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 5 minutes. Then, drain well. (This is also a good time to thaw the phyllo dough, or put it in the fridge to thaw overnight).
2. Chill uncovered in the refrigerator until cool enough to handle. Crumble and place in a bowl with remaining ingredients. Mash or blend the mixture until it has a fine, grainy texture (similar to ricotta cheese) Cover and chill several hours or overnight (will keep in fridge - covered! for about 5 days)
3. In a medium bowl use a fork to thoroughly mix the tofu "ricotta" and cream cheese. The final mixture should be goopy without huge chunks. Then, completely mix in the nutritional yeast and a pinch of salt.
4. Unwrap the phyllo dough and unroll it on a sheet of foil. Cut the dough in half width-wise. Then, pull off one of these half sheets and set it on the counter. Cover the rest of the phyllo with another sheet of foil, and top that with a very damp (but not dripping) dishtowel. This will help keep the phyllo from drying out, but with out getting it sticky and wet. (Thanks for the trick Grandma!)
5. Put the half-sheet in front of you so that it is long-ways going up and down. Then, put 1 TB of filling about one inch up from the bottom of the sheet , right in the middle. Brush butter all along the edges of the dough.
6. Fold the bottom of the dough over the filling and brush the whole fold with butter
7. Fold the left side of the dough over the filling square (like you are folding a shirt) and brush with butter. Your dough should now be 1/3 as wide as it was.
8. Fold the right side over the filling and brush with butter. You should now have the dough folded in 1/3s and it should be 1/3 as wide as it was originally
9. Fold the bottom part into a triangle and brush with butter - then fold it up brush with butter. Continue until you end up with a triangle. (This part is like folding a flag). Brush the entire triangle with butter and put in baking sheet.
10. Take off the next 1/2 sheet of phyllo and continue.
11. These triangles can be frozen, or you can cook them right away. Either way, bake them in 375 degree oven for 10-15 minutes (fresh ones sometimes take 20 minutes). They should be a bit browned and crispy on top when they are done - and yes your pan will be full of melted butter.

I know this sounds complicated with the phyllo folding, but trust me, it's worth trying! My directions might weird, but try a few and I bet you'll figure it out!

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